CANNES – Dario Argento made his directorial debut the same year I was born. He has literally been making horror films as long as I’ve been alive, and his first nine horror features are arguably one of the best runs any filmmaker in the genre has ever had. I consider “Suspiria” to be one of the towering accomplishments in all of horror, a true nightmare that makes almost no literal sense but that manages to wrap the viewer in a perverse and pervasive sense of dream. His influence can be felt in hundreds, if not thousands of films at this point, and it would be impossible to overstate how good he can be when he is at his best.
“Dracula 3D” is pretty much the direct opposite of his best.
My first and perhaps most fundamental issue with the film is that Bram Stoker’s novel has been adapted so many times and in so many ways that any new adaptation really should find something to add to the conversation. Why else would you want to make a Dracula film? The character has been portrayed in any number of settings, and there have been adaptations both faithful and almost completely reinvented. The bare bones of the Stoker novel have been so thoroughly stripped of meat at this point that it seems almost pointless to return to it as source material. Still, the right filmmaker and the right cast could make it seem fresh, and the right take on things could convince me that I’m wrong about the property. It’s certainly happened before.
The screenplay by Argento, Antonio Tentori, Stefano Piani, and Enrique Cerezo, is tin-eared from the opening scene, and the stated goal of Argento to make a faithful adaptation is at almost direct odds with the way the film actually plays. There are any number of choices made here that add nothing to the text and seem arbitrary. Again, feel free to change the material all you want if it serves some thematic or dramatic purpose, but every major adaptation choice here weakens Stoker’s story, not strengthens it. Likewise, the decision to shoot in 3D seems entirely craven, a reaction to the international marketplace’s hunger for 3D product and in no way an artistic choice. Argento seems to have no real idea what to do with 3D, and there are some moments where the gimmick is flat-out hilarious, cringeworthy in the on-the-nose way he uses it.
The film opens with Tania (Miriam Giovanelli), a local girl, meeting her lover secretly in the middle of the night. Giovanelli is an architectural marvel, and I certainly can’t criticize Argento’s decision to have her nude scene open the movie. But the way he shoots the subsequent stalking of her by Dracula in the form of an owl and the the attack that ends up taking her life and transforming her into one of the undead is creaky to the point of silly. There is not a single authentic scare in the film, but it’s more than that. It’s as if Argento has genuinely forgotten how to stage a scene at all. I would never say that narrative was his strong suit, but it didn’t matter. He was expert at making you feel like you were caught in a bad dream, and so I was willing to forget about the standard rules of storytelling during his movies. I believe in engaging a filmmaker on the terms of their film and not based on some ideal I carry into a screening. If this is, as Argento says in the press notes, meant to be his version of what Hammer did in the ’60s, then it is a complete failure. Those films managed to take sexual overtones (there was nothing subtle about them) and classic horror iconography and create something that felt new and alive and vibrant. This film would be embarrassing if it had been made by a first-time director. For this to be the latest effort from someone who is justifiably thought of as a horror legend is almost beyond comprehension.
Unax Ugalde, who stars as Jonathan Harker here, gives a performance that will make you long for the subtle, commanding work Keanu Reeves did in the Coppola version, and I’m not kidding. He even sort of looks like a Euro-Keanu, and in this version, Harker is hired as the librarian for Count Dracula. He is the key protagonist for about 20 minutes, and then gets summarily written out of the movie, dispatched to the background of all but about three scenes. Instead, the focus quickly shifts to Mina (Marta Gastini), his wife, who decides to come join him in the small village that lies in the shadow of Castle Dracula. She also wants to visit her old friend Lucy (Asia Argento), whose father is the Mayor. Somehow, this leads to Mina giving Lucy a spongebath.
I could forgive almost anything in a movie like this if they had a great Dracula, but they don’t. Thomas Kretschmann, who has certainly done good work in other films over the years, turns in a performance here that is entirely free of charisma. He is just plain wrong for the part. There is no heat, no feral energy, nothing about him that is remotely seductive. He is a crashing bore even when he’s ripping off heads and slashing throats. I’m also frankly confused about his powers in the film, as in one scene where he apparently transforms into a giant preying mantis so he can stab someone with his pincher. I think I may have missed that scene in any previous incarnation of the character, or the explanation in this one about why he can become a seven-foot-tall bug.
Even Claudio Simonetti, who I would consider one of Argento’s most important collaborators over the years, is off his game here, turning in a terrible theremin-heavy score that would have felt dated even in the ’50s. It also seems to have little relation to what’s actually happening onscreen at any given moment. When you look at “Suspiria,” that film is so completely reliant on that remarkable score that I can’t picture one without the other. Argento’s images fed into Simonetti’s score and that score takes those images and turns them into something even greater. Here, neither imagery or music works, and the result is leaden, a misfire across the board.
The only cast member who seems to have anything going on is Rutger Hauer, whose Van Helsing doesn’t make an appearance until well over an hour into the movie. Even so, he can’t save the picture, and he’s forced to act opposite some ridiculous moments, looking fully aware that it’s not working in every scene.
Last night, when I first tweeted about my reaction to the film, a friend called me out and said I was being dismissive of Argento and his legacy. Far from it. His legacy is intact, and no one can ever take away from what he’s accomplished in his career. But when this is the end result, perhaps Argento’s heart just isn’t in it anymore. There is no sign here of the legend, and I would rather just stop watching his work than watch him turn in something this painful in the future. There is no joy for me in ripping this film, but there is also no joy in watching it.
“Dracula 3D” has no US distributor currently, and I will be shocked if that changes.